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Baker Encouraged on Mideast Peace Process : Diplomacy: He winds up his sixth trip, saying more work must be done. He suggests Libya attend the talks.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Monday wrapped up his sixth Middle East peace mission, declaring that he is encouraged by the progress he has made and suggesting that radically anti-Israel Libya join the talks.

“I am encouraged that we might yet see an outbreak of peace for the region,” Baker told reporters after meeting for more than two hours with Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid.

“Obviously, there is more work that needs to be done. For its part, the United States will continue to work diligently for peace,” Baker said. “I think it’s important to note that a number of governments have taken some very difficult and tough decisions in recent days. There is in our view, at least, a golden opportunity here, and that opportunity should be seized.”

He was referring to the decisions of both Syria and Israel to join a proposed Middle East peace conference on the basis of U.N. resolutions that call for Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied in 1967. Previously, Syria had refused to talk to Israel, and Israel had rejected any talks on the basis of a territorial compromise.

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A senior U.S. official on Baker’s aircraft said he welcomed the statement of a Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman Sunday that the PLO is willing to compromise on some issues to enable the peace conference to go ahead.

"(It) seemed to me to indicate a certain interest or willingness to try and work the process . . . and see if there is some way to make it work,” he said.

“This may or may not be (the) official word,” the official added.

But his comments made it clear that the Bush Administration has no objection to the PLO lending support to the negotiations.

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On Sunday, while Baker was visiting the Tunisian capital of Tunis, PLO adviser Bassam abu Sharif said the guerrilla organization is willing to compromise on the key issue of who can represent the Palestinians at peace talks with Israel, but he insisted that the PLO must approve any Palestinian negotiating team.

“We are ready to attend the peace conference,” Abu Sharif had told reporters.

“I think there is room for a formula that will facilitate the peace process,” he had said, indicating the PLO is willing to consider a compromise proposed by some Israelis that would allow a Jerusalem-born Palestinian to attend the conference as long as he carries a Jordanian passport.

But on Monday, it seemed that the PLO was dissociating itself from the comments by Abu Sharif. A spokesman for the organization, terming Abu Sharif’s words “personal remarks,” said they “do not represent the view of the PLO or express its opinion.”

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Baker, asked Monday whether the United States still maintains its earlier position that the PLO has no place in the peace process, ducked the question.

“It is the position of the United States that there should be a dialogue between Israel and Palestinians,” Baker said. “We have discussed the possibility of a delegation of Palestinians from the (occupied) territories who would agree to live in peace with Israel.”

Through his statement, Baker appeared to be attempting to tread a fine line between the Palestinians’ position--which holds that any Palestinian delegation must be authorized by the PLO--and Israel’s position, which holds that the PLO can take no part in the process.

Baker was in Algeria on the third leg of a trip through the Maghreb, the Arab nations of North Africa, whose leaders he has been attempting to entice into serving as observers at the peace conference.

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After meeting with Baker, Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Ibrahimi said his government will call for a special meeting of the Maghreb union--which includes Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania--to consider the idea.

Baker said he envisages Libya and the other Maghreb countries participating in the conference in two ways: as observers at the opening session of the talks, which would briefly join Israel and all its Arab neighbors around a single table, and as full participants in a later phase of talks on such regional issues as arms control, the environment and water resources.

But he added: “It would be preferable if the parties acknowledged the rights of each other to live in peace.”

A senior U.S. official on Baker’s aircraft later said the secretary of state had not intended to issue “a direct invitation” to Libya, but repeated that Baker believed it would be useful for any countries that are interested "(to) attend in a spirit of peace and comity.”

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He said Baker had not consulted with Israel before raising the possibility of Libya’s participation.

However, Libya appears unlikely to participate. The government of Moammar Kadafi has been unremittingly hostile to both Israel and the United States, and Libya’s ambassador to Algeria, Abdel Mouli Ghodhban, said Saturday that the U.S. peace plan “is a plot that the Libyan people, Arab public opinion and Arab revolutionaries will reject. Under this plan, the Jews would keep Jerusalem as their capital.”

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Libya, which the Administration officially considers a terrorist state. The U.S. Air Force bombed Libya’s major cities in 1985 in retaliation for a terrorist attack on American servicemen in Germany.

Baker returned to Washington Monday evening.

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NEXT STEP

U.S. officials said Secretary of State Baker will next begin a period of “telephone diplomacy,” speaking regularly with Middle East leaders and other officials concerned with the peace process while he is on vacation in Wyoming. After that, officials said, the Bush Administration may meet with the various parties in Washington as plans are worked out for the Middle East peace conference that U.S. and Soviet officials hope to convene in October.


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